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Grammatical Form of English Nouns

Traditional grammars define nouns as “words that refer to people, places, things, and ideas.” Pronouns are a subcategory of nouns. Noun phrases are phrases formed by a noun functioning as the phrase head plus any determinatives, modifiers, and complements. In English, prototypical nouns and noun phrases perform eleven grammatical functions:

  1. Noun phrase head
  2. Subject
  3. Subject complement
  4. Direct object
  5. Object complement
  6. Indirect object
  7. Prepositional complement
  8. Noun phrase modifier
  9. Determinative
  10. Appositive
  11. Adjunct adverbial

The grammatical functions that a grammatical form can perform are referred to as the “functional potential” of that grammatical form. Functional potentials help distinguish one part of speech from another. The “internal structure,” or grammatical form, also helps distinguish between parts of speech. In the English language, the internal structures that distinguish nouns from other grammatical forms include number and possession.

Number

English nouns first express number. In grammar, number refers to quantity. Prototypical nouns in English may be either singular or plural. Singular nouns refer to only one “person, place, thing, or idea.” For example, the following nouns are singular:

  • puppy
  • girl
  • phone
  • bottle
  • keyboard
  • stapler
  • container
  • frame

Plural nouns refer to two or more “people, places, things, or ideas.” For example, the following nouns are plural:

  • eggs
  • buses
  • raisins
  • tokens
  • iPods
  • students
  • printers
  • bags

Although most nouns can express number, some categories of nouns cannot. For example, uncountable or mass nouns only have a singular form. For example, the mass nouns milk and rice only have singular forms as in She drinks milk and eats rice but not *She drinks milks and eats rices. The ability to show number applies to only prototypical nouns.

For information about forming the plurals of regular and irregular nouns, see Regular Plural Nouns in English and Irregular Plural Nouns in English.

Possession

English nouns also express possession or lack therefore. In grammar, possessive nouns indicate a possession of or some other relationship to another word or phrase. For example, the use of the possessive in the boy’s bike indicates that the boy owns the bike. The use of the possessive in the little girl’s mother, however, indicates a familial relationship between the little girl and the mother. Prototypical nouns may or may not show possession. For example, the following italicized nouns are not possessive:

  • teacher
  • sandwich
  • dog
  • food
  • father-in-law
  • farm
  • president
  • library

The following italicized nouns are examples of possessive nouns:

  • teacher’s sandwich
  • dog’s food
  • father-in-law’s farm
  • president’s library
  • King of Spain’s proclamation
  • children’s literature
  • James’ wife
  • monkeys’ banana

Although many nouns can show possession, only nouns that refer to people and other living things take the possessive clitic (‘s or s’). For example, both woman and turkey are people or other living things and can therefore show possession in The woman’s face showed her disgust for cleaning her turkey’s cage. However, the nouns hotel and table, which refer to inanimate objects, typically do not have possessive forms but rather function as noun phrase modifiers as in The hotel manager needs to repair the table leg.

For information about forming possessive nouns, see Possessive Nouns in English.

References

Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Huddleston, Rodney. 1984. Introduction to the grammar of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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